Taiwanese films are back, but you may not have realized they were gone in the first place. Presented with the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in New York, this is a story about the comeback of the Taiwanese film industry. Taiwan has always been a motion picture powerhouse, but in the late 80’s their domestic film production entered a spiral of diminishing returns. Local productions slowed but theater owners needed to fill their screens and so they turned to Hollywood instead. Import restrictions were lifted on American movies, and suddenly Taiwan was facing a strange situation. While their arthouse directors like Edward Yang, Tsai Ming-liang, Hou Hsiao-hsien, and Ang Lee were becoming global names, their local film industry was on life support. In some years, Taiwan produced as few as 10 domestic movies, and for almost a decade local films accounted for around 2% of the annual box office.
That all changed in 2008 when a struggling director named Wei Te-sheng, who had worked various odd jobs in the film industry, directed Cape No. 7. A romantic comedy about a failed musician who moved from Taipei back to his tiny hometown, it became a word-of-mouth sensation and is now the highest-grossing Taiwanese movie ever made. Newly invigorated, Taiwanese filmmakers grabbed their passion projects and raced for the big screen, powered by money contributed by suddenly confident investors. Monga, an adrenalized, punch-drunk street gang film opened in 2010, holding the number one spot at the box office against James Cameron’s Avatar.
In 2011, things got even better. That year, You Are the Apple of My Eye, from first time director Giddens Ko, became a box office hit as well as the highest-grossing Mandarin-language movie ever released in Hong Kong (beating Stephen Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle), and became the most successful Taiwanese movie ever released in China, as well as having its theme song become one of the most ubiquitous ringtones across Asia. Time and again, young directors have held it up as an example of how to make a fresh romance that manages to pull the heartstrings without being cheap or sentimental. Starry Starry Night became a critical success in 2011, awing audiences and racking up award nominations for its lush visuals, and Jump Ashin, based on the true story of a hard working gymnast who fights the odds to compete, became another local hit.
Even bigger was Wei Te-Sheng’s project Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale, which was released as two massive movies and became a mammoth hit that revived interest in Taiwan’s indigenous peoples, and has shot new life into the tourism industry (as did Cape No. 7). And now, in 2012, Din Tao: Leader of the Parade, a low budget ultra-local movie that came from nowhere, has beaten everything at the box office, from international co-productions to Hollywood hits, and even more importantly, it’s renewed interest in Din Tao, Taiwan’s local performance folkart.
Today, Taiwan not only boasts some of the world’s finest arthouse directors, but it also has a thriving domestic film industry to match. It’s not back to where it was in the 1970’s – yet – but investors are willing to take a chance on local subjects, technical crews are sharpening their skills, and producers are finding that there’s an overseas audience for local subjects. Taiwanese cinema is back, no longer just ruling the arthouse, but also ruling the box office, and the world is all the richer for it.